Posts Categorized: Review

Mystery review: ‘The Problem at Two Tithes’ by Clara Benson

December 20, 2015 Review 0

Another bundle of fun in the Angela Marchmont series of murder mysteries set in the twenties. This is the seventh, and the author is absolutely on top form. After the wonderful outing in Italy in The Imbroglio at the Villa Pozzi, here we are back in the heart of England, at the very respectable village home of Angela’s brother, Sir Humphrew Cardew and his wife Elisabeth, two of the most pompous, stuffy and dull people imaginable. They disapprove of Angela and everything about her, and although she sets out not to ruffle their feathers, naturally she can’t help getting into trouble almost immediately.

The village setting, and the murder that takes place against a backdrop of the village fete, is redolent of Midsomer Murders, or perhaps the Miss Marple series of Agatha Christie. There are eccentric characters in abundance – an elderly lady on a bicycle, the gossipy vicar’s wife and so on. Angela’s aristocratic reporter pal, Freddy, turns up, as well, together with an even more outrageous reporter from a rival newspaper, who proceeds to trample all over the case, and, when facts are in short supply, makes things up. And then there’s the brother’s mother-in-law, who isn’t quite the meek little old lady she appears to be.

The local police are augmented by Inspector Jameson, but even so, it takes Angela’s determination to solve the case. However, as usual in this series, the murder takes second place to the characters and the little side-stories which are so cleverly woven into the story, such as the sister seemingly about to marry a very dull man for lack of other options, and Angela’s maid trying to find out what, exactly, her mistress got up to in Italy. And the humour, of course. The Cardews are perhaps my favourites for laughs here, but with Freddy, the rival reporter, the old lady and the vicar’s wife, I was entertained from beginning to end. And a charming little romance, as well. An excellent five stars.

 

Divider

Mystery review: ‘The Imbroglio at the Villa Pozzi’ by Clara Benson

December 18, 2015 Review 0

Good grief, that was the most amazing fun. The sixth Angela Marchmont amateur detective series, set in the twenties, sees Angela holidaying in Italy, tangling with spiritualists and meeting an old acquaintance, a certain jewel thief by the name of Edgar Valencourt, last seen charming Angela in The Treasure at Poldarrow Point, book 3 of the series. I always hoped he’d turn up again, but his reappearance was even better than I could have imagined.

The mystery this time is nothing terribly convoluted, but I enjoyed trying to puzzle it out, getting it wrong and watching Angela resolve everything with an airy wave of her hand. But the murder takes a back seat to the characters, and their personal lives. The mysterious Duchessa, for example, who pops up from time to time. The fidgety English clergyman and his long-suffering wife. The almost-convincing medium and the daughter who ‘sees’ things. Even the Italian hotelier and the relaxed ask-no-questions local policeman. All of them feel very real, and the author has cleverly resisted the temptation to resort to caricatures or stereotypes.

But for me the big attraction is Mr Valencourt. He’s a charmer, of course, but then, he’s a con-man, so that goes with the territory, and Angela should know better than to fall under his spell. She does know better, in fact, but somehow she can’t resist him, and he can’t resist her either, even though she knows his criminal background and could give him away. And oh so gently they circle around each other. Their conversations are an absolute delight, every scene sparkling with wit and charm and affection, in a manner completely lost in modern-style books where the romantic couple simply dive into bed together. I loved it.

This book was a joy to read. Italy was the perfect setting, the mystery was plausible, the characters were entertaining and the romance – oh, the romance! If Mrs Marchmont and Mr Valencourt don’t make a match of it eventually, I shall be sorely disappointed. Although Mr Marchmont would seem to be something of an obstacle.

This series just gets better and better. Five stars. At least.

Divider

Urban fantasy review: ‘Twiceborn Endgame’ by Marina Finlayson

December 11, 2015 Review 0

This is the third part of the Proving Trilogy, and there were big reveals in the first two parts which it’s difficult to avoid mentioning in this review. If you haven’t read them yet and don’t want to spoil the surprise, don’t read on.

Werewolves are part of my unholy trinity – along with vampires and zombies – which I will NOT read about, no matter what. Or so I thought. But this is the series that made me love werewolves. Who’d a thunk it? But then this is an unusual urban fantasy in many ways. The main character, Kate, isn’t a badass teenage girl snarking her way through life, and doing nothing but drool over the hot blokes. She’s the mother of a young boy, and heaven knows that makes a refreshing change. Now, there’s a certain amount of snark (she’s Australian, so that goes with the territory), and there’s a little drooling too, it has to be said. But Kate has her priorities sorted, and her son Lachie is at the top of the list.

Kate spent the first book of the series working out what was going on, and trying to survive the Proving, a fight to the death between daughters of the current dragon queen – last one standing gets to inherit the crown. Kate doesn’t want to be queen, but wants to be dead even less, so in the second book she stepped up to the plate to take on her sisters, and her mother. But Finlayson is a demon with those unexpected twists – just when you think Kate must surely be safe, some new and terrifying disaster hits. And at the end of book 2, she’s blindsided by new revelations, to set things up brilliantly for this book.

But Kate isn’t the passive I-want-to-be-human weakling she was at the start of the trilogy. Previously, she’s turned to her dragon-side as a last resort – to save her son, for instance – but now she fully embraces her dragon nature, and truly takes on the role of leader. And yet she never forgets her human side, either, and that’s a difference that gives her a unique advantage, both physically and psychologically.

This book felt slightly less frenetic than the previous two, but that’s partly because Kate is more in charge now, and taking control of her life. Even so, there are still plenty of twists and turns along the way, and the action rarely lets up. And just when you think everything is tied up with neat little bows, Finlayson has one last surprise up her sleeve, which I did NOT see coming. Finally, Kate’s romantic life reaches a resolution at last, and a very satisfactory one it is too.

Everything I look for in fantasy is right here – compelling characters, a fascinating premise and a plot that rattles along with a new surprise round every corner. Add in the author’s terrific writing style, a healthy dollop of Aussie humour and lots of dragons, not to mention werewolves and a whole raft of other shifters, and this is another five stars. I highly recommend the whole trilogy, and not just to urban fantasy fans.

Divider

Georgette Heyer Regency Romance #1: ‘Regency Buck’

December 7, 2015 Georgette Heyer, Regency romances, Review 2

This is the first stage in my attempt to read (or reread) all of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances in the correct order. This was first published in 1935, and it shows. The writing style is high-flown Jane Austen, the backdrops are authentically drawn from the era, complete with famous characters, and the plot is squeezed in amongst all that historical accuracy. The characters have to play second fiddle, and the book suffers for it.

Judith Taverner and her brother Perry are orphans, seemingly abandoned by the guardian appointed by their father, the Earl of Worth. Undaunted, they set off for London to track down the Earl and establish themselves. And on the way there, they bump into (literally!) a most unpleasant character, haughty and supercilious, who treats them like dirt. And guess who their guardian turns out to be?

This was rather good fun, if you can overcome a natural distaste for a heroine who stubbornly does everything she’s told not to do, and a hero who arrogantly manipulates his wards without ever bothering to explain his reasoning. But the side characters were entertaining, the dialogue sparkled with wit and the mystery element of the plot was nicely done, even if there was never the slightest doubt in my mind about what was going on, and why, and by whom.

For fans of historical detail, there’s a veritable deluge of it here. If you want an exact description of the Prince Regent’s outlandish Brighton Pavilion, or a list of the coaching inns between London and Brighton, or the various shops and lending libraries for the well-heeled, or the types of snuff in use, look no further. And several famous people, including the Prince Regent himself and various of his brothers, play small but significant roles in the story. To my mind, so much regurgitated research got between me and the story, and by the end I was skipping the seemingly endless descriptions of furnishings and decoration.

The author has obviously been inspired by Jane Austen, specifically Pride and Prejudice, and I noticed many turns of phrase lifted almost wholesale from there, not to mention certain elements of the plot (the hasty journey to London to track down a missing character, for instance, very redolent of Mr Bennet haring off after Lydia, although in this case with no justification whatsoever). It made the prose a little heavy at times, but still readable.

On the whole, I quite enjoyed the story, and the characters didn’t bother me as much as they did some readers (there are some very disparaging reviews). However, it failed in two respects. The first is the time-honoured one: there would have been no plot at all if the main characters had just talked to each other. The argument for secrecy was never well-made, and the worst thing the hero did to the heroine (to my mind) was to allow her to think her brother was dead. That was cruel and unforgivable, and far worse than the snatched kiss or his consistent rudeness (because – aristocracy; arrogance goes with the territory).

The second failure was the romance. I don’t ask much of a book like this, because the journey is more important than the destination, but there should at least be a conviction in the reader that these two are meant for each other. And honestly, I never felt that here. They argued constantly, and not just sniping but quite forceful battles, and even their romantic rapprochement degenerated into an argument in double-quick time. I’m always happy to see two intelligent, spirited, self-confident souls get together, but this pair veered too far into the arrogant, self-willed and plain bloody-minded. I can’t imagine how they will manage as a married couple.

So despite this being an enjoyable read, well-written and set very much in the era, it still merits only three stars.

Divider

Regency romance review: ‘Two Corinthians’ by Carola Dunn

December 4, 2015 Review 0

I love a good Regency romance, but I find it difficult to find any that aren’t dreadfully silly, and historically inaccurate to boot. I don’t expect every last detail to be perfect, but some things are terribly easy to check, like correct forms of address for the aristocracy, and it’s a great irritant when the author hasn’t even bothered. However, I have no such complaints here. There is a great deal of detail of clothing, and the language is riddled with contemporary cant, but it all felt very authentic. And while there is an outbreak of silliness at the end, it was forgivable.

The two Corinthians (men about town) of the title are George Winterbourne and Bertram Pomeroy. Bertram having lost the love of his life to George’s brother, is urged by his ailing father to marry soon. The suggestion is the elder Miss Sutton, Claire, eccentric and spinsterish at twenty eight, but suitable. George, meanwhile, becomes entangled with Claire and her lively younger sister, Lizzie, by chance, and enters into a pact with Lizzie: he will pretend to woo her to stop her dragonish mother from berating her.

So George is pretending to court Lizzie and Bertram is reluctantly courting Claire, and… well, we can see where this is going, can’t we? But even if the resolution is predictable, that’s not a fault in a book like this. It’s more about the journey than the destination, and here the journey is entertaining and unfolds gently and rather sweetly, with good behaviour on all sides.

There’s not much action, so those looking for highwaymen or pirates or spies should move swiftly on. Nor are there any outbreaks of uncontrollable lust. If you like Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer, then this book is just the ticket. A pleasant, gentle read. Four stars.

A footnote: I didn’t realise it, but this book is actually a sequel to Miss Hartwell’s Dilemma. It made things a little confusing early on as the author skated rapidly over the backstory, but I soon got the hang of it. However, it’s probably a more enjoyable read if approached in the correct order.

Divider

Mystery review: ‘The Incident at Fives Castle’ by Clara Benson

December 1, 2015 Review 0

The fifth twenties murder mystery in the Angela Marchmont series, this time set in a Scottish castle at Hogmanay, where a murder takes place while the occupants are cut off by snow. And wouldn’t you know it, but Angela is the one to discover the body (again).

This one was great fun. Spies, a missing scientist, hidden documents, secret meetings and lots of rushing about in the snow. And a whole ocean full of red herrings. I didn’t guess this one at all, but it didn’t matter, it was great fun watching the story unfold, Angela beetle about being helpful and Freddy get his nose (or his ear!) into everything. Since the American Ambassador was one of those present, we also learned a little bit more about Angela’s past, which, far from being illuminating, actually makes her even more mysterious. I’d love to know more about the not-spoken-of Mr Marchmont. I’d begun to think he was just a convenient fiction, but seemingly not.

Living in Scotland myself gives me the opportunity to chuckle at the author’s mistakes. It’s obvious Clara Benson never spent a Hogmanay in the Highlands. Even supposing Angela’s Bentley managed to make the border by mid-afternoon (a feat which would be quite impressive even today, with reliable cars and motorways, unless she lived a long way north already), its arrival at the castle in the Cairngorms before it was fully dark would be nothing short of miraculous. The sun sets at 3pm at that time of year, and the castle would be several hours’ drive north of the border. But it really doesn’t matter, and it doesn’t impact the plot at all.

The charm of these books is in the period setting, and the lives of the wealthy upper classes, very reminiscent of vintage Agatha Christie. There must be an army of servants, both indoor and outdoor, but they rarely get a mention, apart from Angela’s chauffeur and lady’s maid, and one or two references to the ‘men’ deployed to remove a fallen tree and clear snow. And it was wonderful how, in the midst of murder, political disaster and general mayhem, everyone still felt it necessary to dress for dinner and sit around in the drawing room making polite conversation about the weather. It reminded me of (I think) Murder on the Orient Express where one character is looking for some of the others and is told: it’s four o’clock, naturally the English passengers are all in the restaurant car having tea.

A light but very enjoyable read. A good four stars.

Divider

Fiction review: ‘The Beginner’s Goodbye’ by Anne Tyler

November 29, 2015 Review 0

Aaron is a man with a withered arm and leg after a childhood illness. His family and friends fuss around him, but he won’t be cosseted, and has become a curmudgeonly adult, grumpy at everyone and unable to interact sociably with the world. He works in the family’s small publishing business, a vanity press which also publishes a series of how-to books, The Beginner’s (whatever). Aaron marries a woman just as socially inept as he is, and when she dies suddenly, he begins to encounter her ghost. The plot, such as it is, involves Aaron coming to terms with Dorothy’s death, and beginning to move on with his life (hence the title).

I found this book a very easy read. There’s quite a bit of humour, and, as something of a curmudgeon myself, I very much enjoyed Aaron’s snappishness and passive resistance. With his house damaged by a fallen tree (which also killed his wife), he simply continues to live in the undamaged part until the rain collapses the roof and forces him out. Even then, he has to be pushed into getting things fixed. To say the story is flimsy would be a gross understatement – there really isn’t any plot to speak of, the whole premise is Aaron’s quirky character – but it still flowed along quite gently to its resolution.

An odd sort of book, very readable and entertaining, but it left me feeling vaguely unsatisfied. Like meringue, it looks and tastes good, but isn’t very substantial. Still, I enjoyed it as a lightweight, very quick read (I read it from cover to cover during a single short-haul flight). Four stars.

Divider

Mystery review: ‘The Riddle at Gipsy’s Mile’ by Clara Benson

November 16, 2015 Review 0

This is the fourth book in the Angela Marchmont series of Christie-esque murder mysteries, and after the seaside romps of the last outing, this one is back to the classic structure: a country house, a body and an array of possible suspects.

Angela Marchmont herself is a pretty low-key amateur detective, who sometimes seems to uncover information or deduce things more by chance than skill. She’s not a flamboyant Poirot type, but she also doesn’t seem as astute as Miss Marple. What she does have, however, is a great deal of curiosity, and a willingness to go out to start rooting round for evidence herself, although she thinks of it as helping the police.

If she herself is a little bland, she is surrounded by an array of much more colourful characters. I like her American chauffeur, William, and also Freddy, the aristocratic newspaper man. I hope we’ll see more of Freddy, and his outrageous sidekick, Gertie McAloon. This book also features some unusual characters for a book set in the twenties – members of a black jazz band, and the Chinese owners of a nightclub. This was a fun look at a slightly seedy side of twenties life.

The plot unfolds in the expected way, with enough clues and red herrings to satisfy, and there was a great deal of subtlety in the final revelations. I guessed most of it, but it doesn’t really matter with this kind of book. Those who don’t work it out can be amazed by the author’s cleverness, and those who do can be amazed at their own. Another very enjoyable four stars.

Divider

Fiction review: ‘Little Face’ by Sophie Hannah

November 13, 2015 Review 0

Click to view on Amazon

This is one of those books that starts well, and then descends into some tortuous farce which requires a drastic level of improbability. Lacking a single likeable character, a realistic plot or convincing writing, I’m really struggling to find anything positive to say about it. I kept reading it to find out how it ended, so there’s that, I suppose.

The premise is intriguing. A mother leaves her two-week-old baby for the first time, taking a modest trip to a health club she’s joining, and having a drink. When she returns home, she insists that the baby isn’t hers, that somehow her own baby has been stolen and a different baby substituted. Her husband, who has been looking after the baby, disagrees. This immediately sets up the central conceit of the book: is Alice (the new mother) right? Is she mistaken, suffering from some delusion? Or is she lying?

Whatever the cause, Alice sets a chain of events in motion that involves the police and here we meet the two central characters of the book. Wait a moment, you might be thinking, isn’t this about Alice? You’d think so (I certainly did, especially since Alice’s story is told by Alice herself, in first person perspective), but no, the main characters are the two cops, Charlie and Simon. Charlie’s a woman, despite the name, and she has the hots for Simon. Simon is a genius, apparently. We know this is true because he says so himself. And Charlie must be pretty smart, too, because she has a first from Cambridge. It’s important that we’re told these things, because if we were judging solely on the basis of their actions, we’d have deduced that these two are actually morons.

As the story unfolds, and the two detectives struggle through the investigation, Simon goes off-message more times than a rogue politician (following his instincts, apparently) and is praised to the skies for it. Charlie, meanwhile, who appears to be following a plausible line of enquiry, is hauled over the coals and told to listen to Simon’s instincts. Because he’s a genius, apparently. Hmm.

The plot degenerates after that into ridiculous levels of implausibility, which involves some quite distressing episodes of what I can only describe as torture. And the big reveals at the end? Meh to one and NO WAY to the other. All I can say is: the author cheated. I finished the thing, so two stars. Usually, when I dislike a book, I suggest the sort of reader it might be better suited for, but in this case I really can’t find any reason to recommend this. Avoid.

Divider

Fantasy review: ‘The Death of Dulgath’ by Michael J Sullivan

November 8, 2015 Review 0

Yippee! A new Royce and Hadrian story! I was lucky enough to get this before the official release by contributing to the Kickstarter campaign. For fans of the boys, this is the third story in the Riyria Chronicles series, which was written after the Riyria Revelations trilogy, but precedes it in the story’s timeline. It’s possible to read either first, but personally I think it makes more sense to read the trilogy first, and then move on to the prequels.

The plot is straightforward: the new Countess of Dulgath has been the subject of several assassination attempts. Royce and Hadrian are called in as consultants to advise her courtiers on likely methods of future attempts and suggest ways to circumvent them. And you don’t have to be as cynical as Royce to smell a rat, and suspect that they haven’t been summoned to the far end of the continent just for their advice.

The plot unfolds in the usual devious way, with innumerable twists and turns. Some were predictable and some took me by surprise, but either is fine. Like a murder mystery, working it out ahead of time makes the reader feels smugly clever, but failing that, one can admire the author’s cleverness instead.

But the plot isn’t as compelling here as the characters. Sherwood the painter, Scarlett the entertainer at the inn and, most of all, the quiet centre of the story, the Countess herself, are all deeply intriguing, as well as the familar duo of Royce and Hadrian. Their double act is well-known now, but somehow it never gets old – Hadrian the innocent who sees good in everyone, and Royce his darker counterpart, the cynic who sees nothing but selfishness and greed. And who’s to say which of them is wrong?

I loved every minute of this book. The humour, the camaraderie, the unexpected moments of fun or sadness, the how-will-they-get-out-of-this twistiness, and an ending that was both inevitable, yet also had a surprise hidden away. Very neat. Five stars. Mr Sullivan can write as many of these as he wishes.

Divider